"Then, the explosion": a Pulitzer-winning journalist recalls the Challenger disaster

Twelfth in a series

by John Hanchette

All day long, the Internet and television have been full of sound and no little fury over the moth-balling of our shuttle fleet and, realistically speaking, the dismantling of our space program. National Public Radio has been bleating all day for called-in recollections of our rocketry and space adventures, and asking for commentary on whether this indicates “American decline.”

Who can tell? I think of Congress when I hear those two words, but maybe these space developments are dire tea leaves for the American Condition. I know, I know, there are other projects planned and some still in progress in outer space, but come on now, we’re broke as a nation and this stuff costs money – BIG, BIG money. But I’m not going to get into fault-finding. I’m going to reminiscence.

I had been working as a national correspondent in Washington for Gannett News Service and USA Today when I was sent to Florida in 1985 (my second tour of duty there for GNS) to help transform and expand the Gannett paper in Cocoa Beach into a statewide paper called Florida Today – a cousin of the then-three-year old USA Today, only more orange than blue in color. I was to be the Florida Editor, essentially a state news editor who would make sure the other Gannett papers in Florida and several new bureaus would provide us up-to-the-minute news.

Things seemed to go well. Al Neuharth, the imaginative founder of all three papers mentioned above, let me hire good newspersons, let me fly family back and forth to my home in Annapolis, Md., gave me a nice budget, found me a quaint beach-house rental right on the Atlantic and paid for it, and even assigned me his posh old office in the Cocoa Today building – the one that produced the first paper carried to the moon years before.

Because we were a morning paper, my habit was to drive in late in the morning, grab a late breakfast at the excellent Sunrise Café on Route A1A near Cape Canaveral, cross the bridges spanning the picturesque Banana and Indian Rivers, then get to my desk, confer with my assistant, the late Barney Waters (one of the best pure newsmen who ever lived), and start figuring out the next day’s news and assignments for my small staff.

On the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, I was just finishing my coffee when the cup began to shake and tremble. This did not alarm anyone in the restaurant. A shuttle launch was scheduled for late morning, and the thunder and rattling china meant it was going off as planned.

The custom around the Spacecoast eateries and other service locations at such occasions (by now routine) required patrons – tourists and launch veterans alike – to hurry outside to the parking lots and gape upwards in awe. I was a fan of the space effort, and considered myself lucky to be able to witness this launch in particular because the First Teacher in Space – Christa McAuliffe – was aboard. (My mother was a teacher, and would have loved this moment, but had died of cancer seven years earlier.)

As I quick-stepped out to the diner parking lot, I flashed on a scene 17 years earlier in Youngstown, N.Y., on the old farm I’d bought my new family – running outside after the famous real-time TV footage of Neil Armstrong setting his one-small-step-for-man on the lunar surface, and pointing out to my young step-sons the big, bright moon where the first human action was taking place.

Now, in Cocoa Beach, we were all looking upward, craning necks and holding ears. All was power and might and roar. No worries. NASA had a great track record. Then, the explosion. It fooled all of us. A big orange ball, then, the famous “devil’s fork” contrails of the two booster rockets continuing on, then the cottony contrails of something floating to earth (including one big one that later turned out to be the cabin with seven possibly still-alive astronauts inside).

One space buff diner, coffee still in hand, shouted “Boy, NASA fooled us again. A new launch rocketry configuration!” I started thinking about the contrails. That meant heat. That meant explosion.

In front of me was a roughneck, boot-wearing type wearing a cowboy hat and standing on the bed of his pickup truck with Texas plates, shooting photos with an expensive Nikon. He kept the camera to his eye when the explosion occurred, firing faster. Some halfwits, two or three, were still clapping, as if a July 4th show had just ended. When he climbed down, the cowboy camera guy had a look of shock on his face, and noticed the same on mine. “Exploded” he said simply, but with a question tone. “Yes,” I said, “and I’ll give you a hundred in cash for your film and I’ll return it.”

I was thinking, what if my camerapersons had somehow blown it, or what if NASA confiscated all film? (I was cynical about government even then…) Later, I realized what a cheap bastard I was, offering a puny C-note for historic shots.

The cowboy was adroit and savvy. He said two hundred and a credit line on each one used, and retention of first-option rights on reprinting. Deal. (The staff came through. We ended up using one of the cowboy’s photos, if I recall.)

Back in the office, orderly chaos, if there is such a thing, ensued. Many of the reporters sat at desks, crying softly as they worked. They had lost friends and sources on the Challenger. The astronauts frequently came into the office for arranged interviews, and sometimes visited on their own. I remember Judith Resnick as being particularly knowledgeable, articulate, and yes, beautiful.

There were scores of angles to the story. Barney, who had already thought of most of them, was in control, and Chet Lunner – my bureau’s lead reporter (who later went into politics and became the Deputy Director of Homeland Security after 9/11) wrote a fast, precise, descriptive story with amazing detail. That front page is reproduced in the top floor lobby of the National Press Club in Washington. We hurried out a special edition that left the press in mid-afternoon and sold 62,000 copies, if I remember.

The Challenger disaster soon got me – and Lunner – called back to Washington, where with other GNS staffers, we joined the vast horde of reporters covering Congressional hearings of inquiry, getting politicians to speculate about the future of the space program, describing the inevitable finger-point, and trying to get ahead of the Morton-Thiokol probe concerning the cold-induced brittleness of the booster O-rings – the root cause of the explosion and catastrophe.

I eventually got to cover five presidents, Congress, many exciting stories (sadly, also 9/11) and in toto, spent 22 wonderful years as a Washington reporter before taking my current post as an aging journalism professor. The teaching is fulfilling, but I wish I was back reporting. It’s the best – and sometimes scariest – job in the world.

John Hanchette is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and an Associate Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York.

2 replies »

  1. I had the luxury of going back to my office, locking the door and breaking down. You didn’t. I eventually got back to work that day, but can’t say I was much good. And frankly, my job wasn’t one that was all that critical. I’m just trying to imagine how hard it had to be to be at the top of my game like you were.

    Thanks, Hanch. Great story.

  2. So many of us in the news biz, even far removed from the Cape, had experiences similar to those of Hanch and Pat (another post in our Shuttle series).

    That’s what we try to teach: The public counts on journalists to keep their cool while everyone else is losing theirs.